In examining the incarceration rates between black and white Americans, Virginia Tech researchers conclude that long-term prison sentences are “contagious.”
One in every three black men are likely to be incarcerated in their lifetimes, and as of 2011, there were more blacks imprisoned or under judicial supervision than were enslaved in 1850.
While racial bias is the overwhelming factor driving sentencing disparities between black and white Americans, with fewer black defendants seeing their cases being dismissed or more lenient sentences being offered, researchers have suggested that the nature of imprisonment may be “contagious.”
As published in the Journal of the Royal Society, researchers at Virginia Tech looked at longer prison sentences and the effects of these sentences on society. To do this, the researchers created a computerized statistical model based on the average sentences for drug possession: approximately 14 months for white inmates and 17 months for black inmates.
Based on a 50-year simulation model based on two identical virtual populations, the researchers found that the level of criminality and incarceration under the 14-month sentences actually dropped from the starting point of 1 percent to 0.725 percent at the end of the 50-year period. However, in the case of the 17-month sentences, the incarceration rate skyrocketed to just shy of 3 percent in 50 years. Under an indefinite simulation, the rates plateaued at 1 percent for the 14-month sentences and 7 percent for the 17-month sentences, mirroring current black and white incarceration rates.
The researchers argue that there are multiple reasons for this. First, the families of those who are incarcerated long-term suffer from cumulative emotional and economic stresses, which may manifest as aggressive behavior in the children of incarcerated parents. The absence of the incarcerated inmate’s earning power could also lead to criminality in order to make ends meet, increased child care demands in order for the non-incarcerated parent to work, a lack of emphasis on education needed for social mobility, and increased levels of stress and depression.
Long prison terms, the researchers continue, are also more likely to introduce the inmate’s family to his circle of friends, who are likely to be ex-inmates and criminals. This level of exposure — especially for children — is likely to lead to future incarceration.
Additionally, an inmate’s status as a criminal — even after release — could form a bias against the inmate and his family. As police and the community pay closer attention to the former inmate and his family, the possibility of being arrested and charged with a crime increases.
“[We] have demonstrated that a model of contagion produces an incarceration epidemic similar to that observed in the USA regardless of the demographic characteristics of the individuals,” wrote the researchers. “If incarceration risk is indeed propagated through social networks, our results predict that incarceration is self-perpetuating and changes to sentencing policy may have long-term unanticipated consequences. Indeed, harsher sentencing may hinder progress towards the intended goal of decreasing crime, creating safer communities and maximizing justice to the state, victim and offender.”
This begs difficult questions for politicians that have embraced the idea that being hard on crime is the way to ensure public safety. In reality, harsher sentencing, according to the study, creates a self-fulfilling loop in which stringent sentencing guidelines are created for an increasing crime rate, which was originally caused by the stringent sentencing guidelines. Such a repeating cycle would benefit those that service the prison industry — such as for-profit prisons and prison suppliers.
The study suggests that it may be better for the nation to not address the crime, but to help the criminal. The way forward may be an increase in social development and rehabilitation programs and a proactive look at how to improve the socioeconomic realities of the black community — including by addressing issues of poverty, attainment, racism and access to critical services.